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The Woman in the Wall: Ruth Wilson’s strange new drama about the Magdalene Laundries is intense and exhausting

Ruth Wilson stars in The Woman in the Wall  (BBC/Motive Pictures/Colin Barr)
Ruth Wilson stars in The Woman in the Wall (BBC/Motive Pictures/Colin Barr)

I came to The Woman in the Wall unprepared. I’d pre-read nothing and knew only that it starred Ruth Wilson (The Affair, Luther, His Dark Materials) — arguably the best of her generation at pulling off deliciously unhinged — and was based on Ireland’s atrocious Magdalene Laundries. It is, you’ll know, a cardinal sin for a journalist to admit they haven’t done any research, but better to watch TV that way, I think; less hype equals less disappointment. As it transpires, a heads up would have been useful for this schizophrenic cross-genre melée. So, allow me to provide that public service here.

Creator Joe Murtagh has described his new six-part BBC One series as ‘genre-bending’ and, the first episode (the only one the BBC has allowed reviewers to watch) flip-flops from dark comedy to psychological thriller to horror with a sprinkling of whodunnit. It all centres around Lorna (Wilson). She lives in a fictional Irish village called Kilkinure and we quickly learn that she had been sent off to one of the inhumane catholic church workhouses, the Magdalene Laundries, as a young teen and forced by the twisted nuns to give up her baby.

Her trauma manifests itself through violent sleepwalking episodes (which she attempts to avoid through self-inflicted insomnia and the chilling reminder ‘STAY AWAKE’ she’s daubed across a wall). The show begins with her waking up in a white nightie on a sodden country lane surrounded by cows. She has a shard of glass in her hand and scant idea how she got there. Her day progresses in a depressed and exhausted stupor until she’s given a handwritten note by someone claiming to know where her long ago-given up baby is.

The following morning Lorna wakes to discover the dead body of a woman in her house. This corpse becomes the woman (literally) in the wall as Lorna ends the episode by smashing apart her living room wall, stashing the body and rebuilding it brick by brick as the credits roll.

Ruth Wilson as Lorna (BBC/Motive Pictures/Colin Barr)
Ruth Wilson as Lorna (BBC/Motive Pictures/Colin Barr)

Elsewhere, another body is found. Dublin Detective Colman Akande, played by Daryl McCormack (Bad Sisters; Good Luck To You, Leo Grande), is tasked with investigating the murder of a creepy old priest linked to the same slave house Lorna and the other “fallen women” of the village had once been held hostage in.

These brow-beaten women have come together to form a campaign group seeking atonement from the Catholic church. These scenes are the most powerful in conveying the true horrors of the Magdalene Laundries. As Wilson has said in her press rounds for the show, the conversations here “feel like social realism.” I found myself wishing there was more of this realism to break up the exhausting intensity of Wilson’s mania — but perhaps other viewers are made of stronger stuff.

“Those nuns used us as slave labour, they tortured us and profited from it. I don’t want compensation, I want blood, I want the Pope in Rome to drive all the way to Kilkinure in his stupid f***ing Popemobile and apologise unreservedly to each and everyone of us,” rants one of the women. People think that this won’t happen again, she says, but “they forget that the last laundry closed in 1996. The feckin’ Macarena was in the charts.” It’s powerful stuff.

To tackle material this dark — many survivors who had their babies ripped from their wombs are still alive today, and in 2014 an old septic tank claimed to be a ‘famine grave’ was revealed to contain the bodies of more than 800 infants that had died while in the care of the Bon Secours order of nuns between 1925 and 1961 — with humour and such eccentric lunacy is as impressive as it is brave.

Daryl McCormack as Colman Akande (BBC/Motive Pictures/Colin Barr)
Daryl McCormack as Colman Akande (BBC/Motive Pictures/Colin Barr)

The first episode is discordant but in a completely moreish way. Wilson is engrossing despite being almost monosyllabic throughout. At one point she snaps into one of her fugue states and marches sleepwalking through the village streets swinging an axe and wearing a boilersuit. It’s epic.

Any scene she’s in is magnetic — tense, trippy and unpredictable. I didn’t warm to the serious cop/hapless cop routine between Detective Akande and the local Garda, though, which borders on farcical. Obviously, it is intended as light relief but it comes off as corny and just not very funny, really. The two strands of the story haven’t yet converged, though presumably Detective Akande is likely to sniff out the inconvenient corpse in Lorna’s insulation cavity before long, even if her neighbours don’t.

Part noir, part horror, part thriller, part psychological drama, so far The Woman in the Wall is an exhausting watch, which gallops from past to present via the hallucinations of a haunted woman – but if you feel up to it, it’s worth the emotional toll.

The Woman in The Wall airs on BBC One on Sunday, August 27 at 9pm